Editors note: This article was first published March 9, 2008.
"Train on the Way" to Tacoma, The Ledger trumpeted from the top of its Sunday front page, 125 years ago.
"Cannons will boom" in celebration, the paper declared a few days later.
It wasn't a locomotive that led the local news for weeks in 1890, but rather George Francis Train, a New York City showman who embarked from here to set the world speed record for circling the globe.
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Train was a schemer, dreamer and self-promoter who billed himself the Coming Dictator, the Great American Crank and the Prophet of the Psychological Era.
By 1890, his shenanigans had made the 50-year-old Train a national celebrity, but not a universally admired one.
He got it about right when he told a Tacoma theater owner to turn down the footlights because he would "supply the gas" during a talk to raise money for his coming adventure.
The around-the-world journey was a marriage of convenience for Train and The Ledger's editor, R.F. Radebaugh.
The newspaper stood to gain readers, but the stunt was even more important for Tacoma, which was promoting itself over archrival Seattle as the coming New York City of the West.
The towns were competing for Eastern investors. Tacomans hoped Train would prove them the superior jumping-off point for transoceanic shipping.
Train, a promoter of Tacoma in connection with his railroad-building deals, had a rhyme about the nemesis to the north: "Seattle! Seattle! Death Rattle! Death Rattle! Tacoma! Tacoma! Aurora! Aurora!"
Some say he also first branded Tacoma the City of Destiny.
WHEELING AND DEALING
Born March 24, 1829, in New Orleans, Train lost both his parents to yellow fever at age 4, and was raised by Methodist aunts.
As a teen, he joined his uncle's Boston shipping business and convinced him to produce the fastest sailing vessels of the day. Within a few years, Train was a partner in the enterprise.
After a falling-out with his uncle, Train made himself a millionaire by age 25 in Australia's 1850s gold rush. Miners asked Train to accept the presidency of an independent Republic of Australia. He declined, saying he was holding out for the U.S. presidency.
Train next went to Europe, where he dabbled in revolutionary politics in Italy and France. He persuaded Spain's queen to back his building of a 400-mile railroad on the East Coast.
He became heavily involved in a booming business of the day, laying railroad tracks west. He claimed credit for convincing Northern Pacific Railroad men to end their cross-country line in Tacoma, which they did, much to the benefit of the City of Destiny.
But Train also was involved in an infamous scheme to raise money for the first Union Pacific cross-country line. Politicians were bought and Train and others made a bundle, but stockholders eventually lost everything.
Meanwhile, he speculated in real estate along rail lines and promoted Western towns, especially Omaha, Neb., then Tacoma.
Controversy was never far behind. When Train twice ran for president, he barely registered with voters. After the second trouncing in 1872, he started, bemusedly, to call himself the "Coming Dictator."
By the late 1880s, Train had put aside his stake in building the West to campaign for women's suffrage, vegetarianism and other causes. He also refused to shake hands for fear his "vital forces" would be drained.
By 1889, Train was in a Boston jail for a bad debt, his 15th jail term. It was there he hatched his scheme to promote Tacoma, and himself.
'BON VOYAGE, PSYCHO!'
Just out of jail, Train ran into Radebaugh's wife in a Boston restaurant. He slipped her a note on the back of a menu: "Why not sell theater for $1,000 lecture, and I will go round the world in sixty days."
Radeburgh bit, and the next day offered Train $1,500 to make the trip. The goal was to beat the 72 days it took Nellie Bly, a young reporter for The New York World, to do it five years earlier.
This week in 1890, Train was making his way across the country from New York City. According to a March 11 Ledger article, he already was keeping his end of the deal by promoting Tacoma.
"Every paper who calls on him is told about the metropolis of Washington and the future metropolis of the Pacific coast, " the newspaper reported.
The "Ledger's Globe Trotter, " as the paper called him, arrived in Tacoma on March 14.
"Bang! went the cannon, " The Ledger cried. "Whoop! yelled the waiting thousands as the train bearing the great, the only Citizen George Francis Train rolled into the station at 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon."
After a whirlwind of talks and dinners in which about $5,000 was raised for the trip, Train set out from The Ledger's front door on Broadway on March 18. A 4-by-15-inch brass plate was sunk into the sidewalk to mark his start and hoped-for finish.
A cannon boomed again from a hill, church bells rang, crowds shouted. Train and a young Ledger reporter, S.W. Wall, were steaming out of Commencement Bay within six minutes.
"Bon Voyage, Psycho!" The Ledger declared.
Around Cape Flattery, Train tossed a bottle into the water with the one-word message, "Connected, " to let his fans know he'd caught a steamer bound for Yokohama, Japan. The bottle found its way back to Tacoma, courtesy of a member of the Makah Tribe.
Along the way Hall wired dispatches that filled the Ledger for weeks. True to his word, Train continued to praise Tacoma. True to his character, he enjoyed reading coverage of himself to fellow passengers.
In New York, however, the trip started to sour.
Train had expected a special locomotive to take him directly to Tacoma. But none was waiting. He rode instead to Portland, where again an expected special to Tacoma didn't materialize.
"Don't let me lie five hours in a town that has been calling me names for twenty years, " Train wired his contacts in Tacoma. But that's what happened.
He made it back to Tacoma on May 24, 1890 — 67 days, 12 hours, 59 minutes, and 55 seconds after setting out on the 22,040-mile voyage. Puyallup pioneer Ezra Meeker, another brash showman, was an official timekeeper.
Train had beat the record of Nellie Bly, but not his own hoped-for mark of 60 days. He soon was claiming he had done the trip in 57 days, and that the 10 extra days were for fuel stops and other things that shouldn't be held against him.
The celebration back in Tacoma wasn't quite what it had been when he left. The Coming Dictator wasn't happy about that, or the last bit of his journey, and refused to eat until he spoke to Radebaugh.
The Ledger's publisher wasn't available until the next morning.
BITTER AND LONELY
It's hard to gauge the effect of Train's boosting of Tacoma, but the trip surely didn't give him the career boost he'd hoped.
Train rented a new cottage at 1718 S. 46th St., just west of Alaska Street. Interstate 5 now passes over where the house stood.
He decorated the inside with mementos of his trip. Outside he hung railroad banners proclaiming the journey. For awhile he spent his time entertaining schoolchildren, but when summer came, they stopped showing up.
By fall he was ready to head back to New York.
Once the owner of a mansion in Newport, R.I., Train ended his days in a cheap hotel room in New York, living on peanuts and vegetables. In the end, he'd talk only to children and animals.
He died Jan. 5, 1904.
The brass plaque that marked the start of his trip around the world still exists. It was moved to the walkway in front of the Pythian Temple in the 900 block of Broadway.
"In commemoration of George Francis Train's record round the world trip, " it states. "Point of departure and return, March 18, 1890 — May 24, 1890. Time 67 days, 13 hours. Presented by the Junior Chamber of Commerce."